From Ancient Persia to Modern Iran: Culture, Politics, Religion

Study Day - Abstracts/Biographies

19 November 2005, 10.00-17.00
British Museum, Clore Education Centre (BP Lecture Theatre)

A study day with introductory lectures to the rich history and influence of the culture of Iran, from the 5th century BC to the present.

Political History - The Uses and Abuses of History in Modern Iran

Ali Ansari, University of St. Andrews
With the growth of modern nationalism and popular politics in modern Iran a succession of leaders have sought the rich reservoir of Iranian history for their own political purposes, particularly with a view to legitimating their rule. This lecture will look in particular at the way in which the Pahlavi dynasty sought to cultivate a myth of the monarchy by association with previous dynasties especially, but not exclusively, in the pre-Islamic era, and analyse the ways in which history was manipulated and distorted to confirm the particular dynastic ideology. It will then move to assess the reaction which set in after the Islamic revolution and argue that a far more effective social renaissance in historical thought is emerging in Iran, not only with the advent of a professional class, but with the growing interest in history among people in general. This 'reinvention' of Iranian identity has been fuelled by higher rates of literacy, as well as developments in technology which has decentralised power and allowed Iranians to explore their historical inheritance in unprecedented The talk will conclude with an excerpt from a film made (but never broadcast) in Iran commemorating the heritage of Persepolis.

Ali Ansari

Ali Ansari is Reader in Modern History with reference to the Middle East at the University of St Andrews. He has authored many books and articles, including: Modern Iran since 1921: The Pahlavis and After (2003), Iran, Islam & Democracy - The Politics of Managing Change (2000, 2nd ed, 2006); 'Cultural Transmutations: The Dialectics of Globalisation in Contemporary Iran', T Dodge & R Higgot (eds) Globalisation and the Middle East: Economy, Society & Politics, RIIA (2002); and 'The Myth of the White Revolution: Mohammad Reza Shah, 'Modernisation' and the Consolidation of Power', Middle Eastern Studies, 37, 1-24.

Alexander to Iskandar - The Metamorphosis of Alexander the Great in Persian Painting

Sheila Canby, The British Museum
In the 1300 years between Alexander the Greatís invasion of Persia and the completion of the Persian national epic, the Shahnameh, Alexander was transformed in the Iranian imagination from a foreign conqueror to a native son reclaiming his imperial birthrite. Persian manuscript illustrations from the 14th to 16th centuries depict Alexander the Great not only as a warrior but also as a seeker of spiritual truth. This talk will examine how Alexander, or Iskandar, was portrayed in Persian painting and the impact that his positive image, a true beau ideal, had on the painting of other regions, especially Mughal India.

Sheila Canby

Sheila Canby, curator of 'Legendary Heroes and Ancient Kings in Iranian Painting', is an Assistant Keeper and Curator in charge of Islamic art and antiquities at the British Museum. Before joining the British Museum she worked lived for two years in Bahrain. Her publications include Princes, Poets and Paladins: Islamic and Indian paintings from the collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan (1998), and The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501-1722 (1999).

Achaemenid Art - An Overview

John Curtis, The BritishMuseum
This presentation discusses the official and popular art and architecture of the Achaemenid Empire, and defines its main characteristics. It shows that Achaemenid art is essentially eclectic, drawn from different parts of the Empire, but welded together to produce a distinctive style.

John Curtis

John Curtis, curator of the 'Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia' exhibition, has been Keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum since 1989. He is particularly interested in Iran and Mesopotamia, between 1000 BC and 331 BC. In Iran he has participated in excavations at Haftavan Tepe and Tepe Nush-i Jan. Publications include: Nush-i Jan III: The Small Finds (1984) and Ancient Persia (1989, revised edition 2000).

Re-Dressing the Persians

Lloyd Llwellyn-Jones, University of Edinburgh
The ancient Greeks simultaneously admired and despised the Persians for their love of luxury; whilst depicting the subjects of the Great King as effeminate barbarians dressed in ostentatious splendour, the Greeks nevertheless aspired to wear such remarkable fashions and often imported items of dress from their eastern enemy. Famously, Alexander the Great readily took to wearing Persian royal dress, much to the disgust of many of his Macedonian generals. Studying the elegant representations of clothing on Persian monuments, it is easy to understand Greek preoccupations with Eastern textiles and fashions: the ruins of Persepolis, for example, preserve a vast amount of information about how the Persians dressed throughout their Empire. Textile remains as well as archaeological finds, such as jewellery, augment our understanding of the important role clothing played at the Achaemenid court. This lecture explores how Achaemenid clothing was created and aims to reconstruct court fashion of the type seen on the Persepolis reliefs and on seals found across the Empire. To help explain the way in which Persian clothing was worn, reference will be made to the accurate costuming found in Oliver Stone's 2004 movie 'Alexander'.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is lecturer in Classics at Edinburgh University and Research Fellow in the Department of Classical Studies at the Open University. Current research interests are in the cultures of Classical Greece and Achaemenid Persia (especially women and the role of dress in ancient societies) and in the reception of antiquity in popular culture, particularly in Hollywood cinema. He worked as a historical consultant (for sets and costumes) on Oliver Stone's film 'Alexander'.

Grace under Pressure - New Art in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Edward Lucie-Smith, London
The Revolution brought with it new popular art forms such as the propaganda murals that now play such a dominant role in the urban landscape of Tehran. The Revolution, in addition to creating very different conditions for the making of art within Iran itself, also led to a Diaspora of artists. Three focal points appear to be of importance to post-revolutioniary art in Iran. The first is about the medium chosen. Iranian culture has been quick to adapt itself to the computer. Images produced on the computer do not carry the weight of expectation that is aroused by using media traditionally associated with Western art - oil paint on canvas in particular. The second is about sexuality and gender. Post-revolutionary Iran is commonly seen as a society in which discussion of such topics is discouraged, even when it is not actually repressed. Thirdly, though the vehicle through which the idea is expressed may often, in a purely technological sense, be very new, there is an increasing fascination with and respect for, the Iranian past. Traditional archetypes - the Qajar odalisque, the legend of Sohrab and Rustum - are used to express intensely contemporary meanings.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Edward Lucie-Smith was born in Jamaica and later settled in Britain. He studied at King's School, Canterbury and Merton College, Oxford, and was an Education Officer in the Royal Air Force and an advertising copywriter before becoming a freelance author, journalist and broadcaster. He began his literary career as a poet, has published four collections of poetry with Oxford University Press and is currently a member of the Academie Europenne de Poesie. He is well known for his numerous books on art and related subjects and has acted as curator for many exhibitions and lectured extensively all over the world. Publications include American Realism (1994), Art Today (1995), Visual Arts in the 20th Century (1996) and Albert Paley (1996).

Images of Power - The Sasanian King of Kings of Iran and non Iran

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, The British Museum
The Sasanian dynasty, named after Sasan, a legendary ancestor, came to power at the beginning of the third century AD. Ardashir, the son of Papak, challenged his Parthian overlord Ardavan (Artabanus) and Ardashirís victory at the battle of Hormizdgan in western Iran is commemorated on a rock-relief at Firuzabad south of Shiraz, where the new king of kings throws his opponent off his horse. Another victory scene appears at Naqsh-i Rustam near Persepolis, where the triumphant King Ardashir appears on horseback and receives his ring of power from Ohrmazd, the Zoroastrian Lord of Wisdom. The Sasanian king of kings regarded himself as the legitimate ruler, who was in possession of the God-Given Glory, the khvarenah (modern Persian farr). Kingship and religion remained inseparable throughout four hundred years of Sasanian rule.

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, curator of 'Iran Before Islam: religion and propaganda AD 224-651', is the Curator of Ancient Iranian Coins in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, Secretary of the British Institute of Persian Studies and editor of Iran, the journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies. She has excavated in Iran at Bastam, Tepe Malyan and Qaleh Yazdigird. Publications include: Persian Myths (1993, 1996, 1998, 2000) and The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia (1997).

Material Culture and Persepolis Reliefs

St. John Simpson, The British Museum

St. John Simpson

St John Simpson is an Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Ancient Near East where he is responsible for the Ancient Iran, Arabia and 'Alexander to Islam' period collections. He has excavated widely in the Near East and Central Asia, and was the lead curator and editor of the exhibition catalogue Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen (2002).

Sogdian Art and Culture

Luke Treadwell, Ashmolean Museum
The 'Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia' exhibition at the British Museum shows us a world that was dominated in all respects by the imperial ideal. The Emperor, or Shahanshah, was the leader of his people, the guarantor of God's good will and the embodiment of his people's culture. In Sogd, by contrast, there were no indigenous emperors. This was a land of city states, where power was held by city elders, merchants and mercenaries. It was above all a land made rich by the traders who travelled from China to Byzantium and all points between, bearing high quality goods, such as silk and musk. They brought the fruits of their wealth home to adorn their houses and courts. The art and culture of Sogd, in particular its spectacular tradition of wall painting, was cosmopolitan, eclectic and fluid and formed a vivid counterpoint to the static imagery of imperial Iran.

Luke Treadwell

Luke Treadwell is Samir Shamma Lecturer and Assistant Keeper in Islamic Numismatics, Heberden Coin Room, Ashmolean Museum. His publications include editing the Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum and he is the author of Catalogue of Buyid Coins. He is also interested in the study of early Islamic Central Asia.

'Veils of Splendour' - Tilework in Iran and Central Asia 13th to 15th Centuries

Venetia Porter, The British Museum

Venetia Porter

Venetia Porter is curator for the Islamic collections in the Department of Asia at the British Museum. She has lived in the Yemen and is a scholar of medieval Yemeni history and architecture. Her work has spanned medieval ceramics and tiles, aspects of Islamic coins and the history and architecture of medieval Yemen. She organised the exhibition 'Mightier than the Sword' about Arabic writing and calligraphy in Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur.